Dates to Live By

I was born June 12, 1945. Two months later, Japan surrendered. 

The surrender of Japan. Army Signal Corps photographer LT. Stephen E. Korpanty; restored by Adam Cuerden – Naval Historical Center Photo # SC 213700. Public Domain.

That matter settled, I turned my attention to trying out my body parts, learning my native tongue, and getting acquainted with my family. These experiments engrossed me fully until about 1950, at which point I noticed . . . everything else.

Our world in those days was simple and straightforward. We knew where we stood. If March came in like a lion, it would go out like a lamb. The Brooklyn Dodgers would play the New York Yankees in the World Series. You couldn’t go swimming in the summer for fear of polio.

My Castle of Knowledge and Experience. Photo by Jaime Spaniol on Unsplash.

Beyond such truths, whole reams of information settled in my skull, etching deep lines to form a kind of blueprint of reality—upon which, eventually, I would build a castle of knowledge and experience. My castle was not unique. My friends and schoolmates all built similar castles. 

Holidays, Seasons, Rituals

The columns, ribs, and stays of the castle were holidays, seasons, and rituals ordained by society at large. These recurring festivals buttressed a remarkably durable structure of life.

The year kicked off on New Year’s Day, with multi-hued bowls—Rose, Orange, Cotton, and Sugar. The Groundhog was pure myth. He never saw his shadow, nor did we ever see him not see his shadow.

The Groundhog. Photo by Ralph Katieb on Unsplash.

But then came a real holiday—Abraham Lincoln’s Birthday, February 12. Lincoln was  one of our two greatest presidents. He had a beard and a kindly smile. (I learned later that he also led our nation through its darkest days.) 

The other great presidential birthday was George Washington’s on February 22. Washington did not have to wear a beard to be great. As Father of Our Country he was an automatic qualifier. 

May basket. “may basket” by brambleroots is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0.

The birthdays of our greatest two presidents were important enough to cancel school, when they fell on weekdays. Such holidays—our national birthright—were never devolved upon the nearest Monday, as they are now in exchange for that mess of pottage known as a long weekend.

Between Lincoln’s and Washington’s birthdays fell Valentine’s Day, a time for exchanging sappy cards with your classmates. We also observed Easter and April Fool’s Day, but they did not leave the impression on me that May 1 did. It was called May Day, and it was wonderful. Egged on by mothers and teachers, we made baskets of colored paper, filled them with flowers, and gave them to our friends in a stealthy manner. You snuck up to the door, hung a basket of flowers on its handle, rang the bell, ran away, and hid, so you could peek out from a safe place to see your friend’s surprise and awe when they found the flowers.

We had May Day and its merry hijinks. Today’s kids have cell phones, X-Boxes, powered scooters, and Pokemon (whatever that may be). Who is richer?

“Decoration Day”

At the end of May came Decoration Day, a time to go to the cemetery and bedeck the graves of our loved and lost. Originally, the idea was to honor the War Dead, but by the time I came along, all but the most disreputable dead had their graves strewn with flowers indiscriminately. After decorating graves in the morning, there came a big parade down Main Street. By the time that concluded in mid-afternoon, the Big Race was on—the Indianapolis 500, which was always run on May 30, Memorial Day.

We watched the race on the radio. Four announcers cried the tidings of roadsters swooping through each turn. After more than three hours of whining engine noise, the winner crossed the line, to receive a bottle of champagne and a kiss from a Hoosier lovely. Your ears could smell the gasoline fumes. 

Decoration Day was an informal name for Memorial Day. The whole pageant has long since been moved to Monday Nearest, like most other holidays.

Independence Day

Thank God we still celebrate Independence Day on July 4, regardless when it falls in the week. This exemption from the Monday Nearest rule shows that the Fourth is one of our most sacred holidays—like that other exemption, Christmas. July 4 is sacred, of course, because it is the nominal date of our Declaration of Independence.

Declaration of Independence by John Trumbull, 1819. Public Domain.

Why is Independence Day, July 4, celebrated so much more intensely than Constitution Day, September 17? Isn’t the Constitution the basis of our laws? Yes, but the Declaration was the basis of our country. The 1776 phrase “all men are created equal,” and the notion that government’s job is to protect our rights—life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness—have always meant more to us than the details inked in 1789. 

The Declaration became paramount before and during the Civil War. Lincoln’s powerful rhetoric was based on the simple notions of the Declaration, not the complex compromises of the Constitution. 

Hence all the fireworks.

Downhill to Winter

After July 4, the year is mostly downhill. Labor Day, recognized by Congress in 1894 to honor the American labor movement, is the only holiday originally fixed on a Monday, that labor might be ennobled by a day off work. 

In urban areas with strong unions, it became a major feast, with marches, picnics, speeches, and political activism. Such was not the case in the small Midwestern towns of my youth. Labor Day was just a welcome day of loafing or, in my case, the last day before school started.

Columbus Day, another reprieve from school, occurred on October 12. We learned that “in fourteen hundred ninety-two, / Columbus sailed the ocean blue.” Latter-day scholars have pointed out that Columbus, in his thirst for gold, enslaved the Arawak natives on the island of Hispaniola and established a pattern of exploitation that has shamed the Western Hemisphere from that time to this. But we learned none of that. He was just the Discoverer of America—which is a good thing, right?

On the night of October 31, rigged out in costumes from our mothers’ fertile imaginations, we gave considerable attention to the process of shaking down our neighbors for candy. There were goblins and ghosts, to be sure, but I don’t recall anyone trying to scare the living daylights out of small children, as has become the practice since then.

“Get Your Deer?”

The fourth Thursday in November was Thanksgiving, probably the most delicious holiday of the year. Here in Wisconsin, Thanksgiving falls in the midst of Deer Season, so the festivities sometimes take a back seat to the hunt—at least for those who have not got their buck yet. 

When I was a child in downstate Illinois, deer were not that plentiful, the deer hunt was not of widespread interest, and we focused on ritual re-enactments of the Pilgrims Story—plus, of course, eating turkeys. The central rite of Thanksgiving Day was the Big Football Game, broadcast in mid-afternoon. Regardless of who the combatants were, this was a pretty important game, because Thanksgiving occurred just at the point when the college and pro football seasons were getting serious. The hunt for championships was in the air. 

But in those days, it could be hard to follow that hunt, because our black-and-white television screens were sicklied o’er with electronic “snow.” This virtual precipitation further obscured the action on a gridiron already vexed with actual, meteorological, snow. And mud, of course—because Astroturf was still only a gleam in the eye of Mister Astro.

Guy Lombardo. Photo by Mauice Seymour. Public Domain.

Christmas came but once a year, a month after Thanksgiving. It made a fitting end to the year, the best holiday of all. Because of all the TOYS. Only later in life did I learn that the thing that made Christmas sweet was that the whole family got together. That was better than all the toys. I wish I’d known that when I was six.

There was, technically, one holiday after Christmas: New Year’s Eve, December 31. But, unless you happened to be one of Mister Guy Lombardo’s Royal Canadians, I would seriously advise you to skip it. Too many drunks on the road.

Blessings,

Larry F. Sommers, Your New Favorite Writer 

October

Sunday, October 25—Here in Madison, we are seeing our first snow shower of the season.

It won’t stick.

A white film may coat the ground like manna tomorrow morning, but it will be gone in 24 hours—melted like manna by the sun, or else sublimated in the gray air of autumn. 

Brown leaves have descended from our maple and our neighbor’s walnuts, and small yellow ones from our black locust. Yet plenty of other leaves cling green on trees and bushes. Soon enough, they too shall be crispéd and sere, as Poe would prefer.

How can such frail fingers pluck so loud on the strings of my reverie? Launching this blog, I pledged to resist the charms of mere nostalgia. But October brings a flood of recall, in which I am swept up all too willingly. 

Rather than fight it, Dear Reader, I will share a bit with you.

McCutcheon of the Trib

Every October of my youth—indeed every fall from 1912 through 1992—the Chicago Tribune showcased “Injun Summer,” a cartoon drawing, with folksy narrative, by editorial artist John T. McCutcheon. Its two panels showed a boy and his grandfather watching a field of conical corn shocks transform into a tepee village, with smoke-shaped Indians doing a dance in the wispy gloaming. 

The old man, in his homey way, explains to the lad that the “sperrits” of “Injuns” now extinct return each year, moved by the autumn haze to haunt their former campgrounds. News readers, even in the darkest parts of the twentieth century, knew that Native Americans were not extinct, but despite that fact, “Injun Summer” became a hallowed tradition over a term of eighty years. 

For one thing, it was assumed by white Americans that the traditional Indian way of life was a thing of the past; that those Indians still alive had better act like typical Americans or be swept aside by history. For another, most Midwesterners—the Trib’s main audience—had such warm memories of autumn days that we were suckers for the romantic image of long-dead Indian ghosts dancing in the smoky haze of burning leaves.

Burning Leaves

I doubt it happens now in very many places—what with the Clean Air Act and all—but in days of yore we would rake dry leaves from our yards into the street and simply set a match to the piles. On a nice October day, whole neighborhoods would come out to chat amid the smoke. Kids ran to and fro, playing tag among the leafy pyres, as grown-ups with metal-tined rakes kept the conflagration confined. 

Folks in our neighborhood brought out foil-wrapped potatoes and baked them in the leaves.

We could do these things, Fair Reader, because there were half as many of us then as there are now. Such frolics would be ill-advised in the brave new world of now.

Autumn Edibles

Besides our annual festival of burning leaves, we went nutting. We competed with the squirrels. Dad drove us to a place he knew of in the country, where stood an acre or two of shagbark hickories in a park-like setting. We scooped nuts off the ground and tossed them into gunny sacks.

I was not partial to hickory nuts, or any other kind; but Mom, in particular, liked all varieties of nuts. Commonly, we and others left a bowl of unshelled nuts on a coffee table, an end table, or a bookcase-top—with nutcrackers and nutpicks handy to aid in their consumption.

A ballet nutcracker. Photo by Chris Briggs on Unsplash.

Just so you younger folks will know: Nutcrackers did not dress up in uniforms like palace guards. No; they were simple, functional devices in zinc-plated steel, similar to pliers. They were meant for cracking nuts, not for dancing ballets.

Besides nuts, we ate a lot of fresh apples in the fall and drank quite a bit of cider, which we got from your proverbial roadside stands. Often a glass jug of cider, and perhaps a pumpkin and some gourds, would come home as the byproduct of a simple drive in the country. 

In those days, we drove in the country a lot. Just for fun. 

A real nutcracker. Photo by 
Dirk Vorderstraße, licensed
under CC BY 2.0.

With gas at thirty cents a gallon, the Sunday drive was cheap entertainment. It was especially popular in the fall, when the colors were great. Most country roads were two-lane, with top speeds around 50 miles per hour. When you saw a roadside stand with cider and pumpkins, there was a fair chance you could pull off and stop before you had zoomed past it.

Today the country stands are bigger operations, destinations in themselves, at odd ends of county trunk roads. If somebody were to set up a small stand beside the main highway, it would be hard for drivers tunnel-visioning along at 75 mph to fight their way across three or four lanes of traffic and sample the wares.

Halloween

We celebrated Halloween as children do today, by dressing up in costumes and going down the street to extort candy from the neighbors. Today, small children go under parental escort. Only teenagers go on their own, and then always in groups. You never know who might be lurking. 

In our childhood, parents did not go along. Only kids went, usually in fair-sized groups. There might be children as old as twelve or as young as four in a group. A child too young for attachment to such a group was not yet old enough for trick-or-treating. And groups of kids straggling about the neighborhood on Halloween night were ostensibly safe. After all, what could happen?

Besides trick-or-treating, Halloween parties were sometimes arranged at schools, churches, or private homes. As best I can recall, what one did at such a party was bobbing for apples. If you’ve never bobbed for apples, Gentle Reader, then you have missed the fun of sticking your face in a tub of cold water, rooting about aimlessly for an eternity of minutes, likely damaging one or more of your possibly still-emerging teeth, and being laughed at because you were unable to sequester a single globéd fruit.

Thanksgiving

Less than a month after Halloween comes Thanksgiving. Our modern American holiday is a mashup of traditional harvest festivals such as the one held in Plymouth, Massachusetts, in 1621 and a national need, felt strongly during the Civil War, to thank God for his blessings. When the Pilgrims held their feast with Massasoit and his braves in 1621, it was just a party to celebrate the fruits of the harvest. Had they considered it a time of special thanksgiving, they would have fasted and prayed for three days instead. Our Reformed forebears were gravely attentive to the task of thanksgiving. 

Thanksgiving at Plymouth, oil on canvas by Jennie Augusta Brownscombe, 1925, National Museum of Women in the Arts. Public Domain.

We modern Americans say “Thank You” best by eating vast quantities of food and falling asleep. When I was young, a new fillip had just been added to that program: You ate, settled down in the living room, and took your nap in front of a televised football game. 

Ollie Matson, 1959,
when he played for the Rams.
Public Domain.

I remember watching, with Dad and Grandpa and various uncles, as Ollie Matson of the Chicago Cardinals made an amazing touchdown run that none of us could actually see, on account of snow. Not meteorological snow at Soldier Field, but electronic snow on the television screen. And a vertical roll so persistent that Uncle Richard stood behind the set tweaking the vertical hold knob throughout the game. They don’t make TVs like that anymore.

(Upon checking the Internet, I find that the Chicago Cardinals did not play a Thanksgiving Day game with Ollie Matson in the lineup in any year of my childhood; so I must be remembering a non-Thanksgiving Day game. But you get the idea.)

Winter Wonderland

Woollybear caterpillar.
Photo by Micha L. Rieser,
used by blanket permission.

We have arrived back at the subject of snow. Soon all this fall frivolity will be done, and we’ll be clamped in the grim vise of winter. It’s hard to wax nostalgic when you’re up to your schnozzola in peaceful, downy-white, hexacrystalline flakes. They’re so tiny—how could they possibly amount to anything?

My friends among the woollybear caterpillars inform me, and my own 75 years of finely-honed instincts confirm, that this will be a humdinger of a winter. It will both hum and ding.

Button up your overcoat.

Blessings,

Larry F. Sommers, Your New Favorite Writer

Thanks for the humiliation

“The First Thanksgiving at Plymouth” (1914) By Jennie A. Brownscombe (1850-1936). Public Domain.

[A]mongst other recreations, we exercised our arms, many of the Indians coming amongst us, and among the rest their greatest king Massasoit, with some ninety men, whom for three days we entertained and feasted, and they went out and killed five deer, which they brought to the plantation and bestowed on our governor, and upon the captain and others.

—Edward Winslow, December 12, 1621

This well-known event was not “Thanksgiving,” even though we remember it that way. 

We know it was not Thanksgiving because if it had been a special time of Thanksgiving,  the Scrooby Separatists would have treated it like a designated time of Repentance: with fasting, prayer, and humiliation. Not with feasting, fun, and games.

Humiliation? What’s that got to do with thanksiving?

How Humiliating

John Adams, painting by Gilbert Stuart. Public Domain.

A friend of mine, who happened also to be my boss, boggled when he read a presidential proclamation by John Adams that called for fasting, humiliation, and prayer. 

“Humiliation? Why would the president of the United States call for our country to be humiliated?” 

My friend/boss was a soldier and a patriot, proud of our nation’s achievements. He was also a classic narcissist, the star of his own show—a show in which all the rest of us were bit players. Humiliation was a concept that did not appeal to him. 

His question was not rhetorical. He was sincere; he wanted an answer. Sadly, other matters more pressing at the time pre-empted the long talk it would have taken to justify the role of humiliation in the psyche of our infant nation.

Of all the presidents who have called us to prayer and thanksgiving, only one embraced the “h” word—John Adams, a staunch old Puritan. His proclamations of 1798 and 1799 urged national, as well as individual, humiliation. That need was seen by the Calvinistic Adams, and perhaps by most New Englanders of that era, as an absolute prerequisite if there was to be any hope for a people mired in original sin.

My boss scorned old John’s advice, I surmise, because he equated humiliation with defeat. After all, the Packers routinely humiliated the Bears. Victorious allies humiliated Germany at Versailles. Saddam Hussein suffered abject humiliation by Norman Schwarzkopf.

Victorious allies David Lloyd George, Vittorio Orlando, Georges Clemenceau, and Woodrow Wilson prepare to humiliate Germany, Paris 1919. U.S. Army photo. Public Domain.

The Upside of Humiliation

“Humiliation” also signifies a path to remembering our creaturehood. Humans are inclined to hubris, yet our proper attitude—the realistic attitude in the full context of God’s world—is humility. That does not come easily to us; thus we require humiliation. Such humiliation could be seen as a victory, not a defeat. I think that is what John Adams meant.

If we ourselves are the center of the universe, we thereby occupy the whole. Where is there space for gratitude? What is there to be thankful for? Who is there to thank?

It has been a very long time since anyone of Great Importance in our general life ventured the faintest suggestion that humility might be a good thing; or, even better, modeled humility as a public virtue. 

Rather, those who dominate our headlines and our consciousness reliably turn out to be monsters of pride and arrogance. Their toxic self-absorption trickles down to the public at large. Or, could it be that it seeps upward to them, from us?

Authentic Gratitude

On the day we call Thanksgiving, we gather around the groaning board. We honor a tradition begun in 1621 with a feast and various entertainments, including football (our most military game). 

Because the name of the day is Thanksgiving, we try to remember, amidst all revelries, to give thanks. Our thanksgiving may take the simple form of each person around the table, in turn, stating what he or she is thankful for. That’s not a bad thing to do. 

Humility, if nothing else, might suggest it is also important to mention Whom we are thankful to.

A little humiliation could be a good thing. Happy Thanksgiving.

Blessings, 

Larry F. Sommers, Your New Favorite Author 

 

The Unknown American

Squanto teaching. The German Kali Works, New York. Public Domain.

His name is known to most of us, but it’s unusual to hear it spoken, except around Thanksgiving. Each November, we briefly recall that Squanto taught the Pilgrims how to plant corn, thereby saving their colony from annihilation. We honor him for giving our English ancestors a warm welcome.

U.S. postage stamp commemorating the Tercentenary of the Plymouth Landing. Public Domain.

There are no true pictures of Squanto. Photography had not been invented; no artist drew him from life. The image above—adopted here mainly for its freedom from legal encumbrance—shows a man with intelligent eyes and open smile, demonstrating the use of fish to fertilize a planting. But Squanto’s story goes far beyond that. 

Our knowledge of history can be ten miles wide and one millimeter deep.

“So Squanto helped the Pilgrims get started when they landed at Plymouth. Why, for crying out loud, do we need to know more?” 

The Rest of the Story

It’s a fair question, and here’s the fair answer: The full story of Squanto informs us beyond the familiar triumphal tale of European colonization. We heirs of the Pilgrims should desire this information, not to dim the luster of our own history, but to remember it with wisdom and grace.

The Landing of the Pilgrims, 1877. Painting by Henry Bacon (1839-1912)

Squanto never aspired to be the native mentor to the Pilgrims. That role came about because when the Pilgrims arrived at Cape Cod in 1620, Squanto was already quite familiar with the English and even spoke their language.

Six years earlier, he and about twenty other young men of the Patuxet tribe had been snatched in one of many kidnappings by English explorers and freebooters ranging in those days up and down the Massachusetts coast. He was shipped across the Atlantic to Málaga, Spain. In Málaga he was freed by Spanish friars, or escaped on his own, or somehow avoided the life of slavery to which he had been consigned. He made his way—we know not how—to England, where he lived for some time in London.  

After a few years, he managed to return to Massachusetts with an English voyage of exploration. When he returned on foot, alone, to the site his old village, he found it abandoned. All of his people were dead or scattered to the winds.

“Virgin Soil Epidemic”

Squanto’s Patuxet tribe had been utterly wiped out by an illness that swept the Northeastern seaboard in those years. Because that illness did not afflict the many Englishmen and other Europeans mingling with the natives at that time, historians consider this great plague a “virgin soil epidemic.” The kind of epidemic that occurs when new disease organisms are brought by outsiders into the midst of a population which lacks prior exposure to them. Nobody knows for sure what single disease, or combination of diseases, rampaged the Massachusetts coast in those years, but the result was a region cleared of former inhabitants. Thus, when the Pilgrims in 1620 arrived on the Mayflower, in foul weather, desperate for a place to hunker down, there was a choice spot of land recently vacated: Squanto’s former home.

One could hardly blame Squanto had he showed hostility to new English settlers. Not only had he been abducted and forced into years of exile far from home, while his friends and family suffered extinction by disease. Many similar kidnappings and other atrocities had been worked upon the local inhabitants in the years preceding the Pilgrims’ landfall. Despite all this, Squanto befriended the Pilgrims.

Why?

Chief Massasoit and Governor John Carver smoke a peace pipe in 1621. Unknown artist. California State Library. Public Domain.

We would like to think the Pilgrims’ character, which stood out from these toxic relationships, vouched for them; that remaining Indian tribes, such as the Pokanoket under Chief Massasoit, discerned their peaceful and honorable intentions, well enough at any rate to trust them and form an alliance. In this context, Squanto was far from a “noble savage” who innocently befriended newcomers with a great white vessel and strange ways. Rather, he was a capable, worldly man, acquainted with European technology and customs. He consented—given his footloose status on his former soil—to become a kind of diplomat for the neighboring tribe in its calculated attempt to forge an alliance with the least-threatening and most promising band of Englishmen in the region. 

After about twenty months of generally satisfactory service in that role, Squanto himself succumbed to illness, leaving the Pilgrims bereft of one important man who had been their friend in adversity. Governor William Bradford, in Of Plimoth Plantation, writes approvingly of Squanto and his influence on the young colony.

Stone marking the spot of King Philip’s death, placed by the Rhode Island Historical Society more than two hundred years later. Photo by Swampyank. Public Domain.

Squanto was a complex individual. The Pilgrims were, like many of us, saints but also sinners. Chief Massasoit and other Native Americans sought to advance their own interests. Latter-day champions of the Pilgrims and other Puritans who poured into Massachusetts starting in 1630 point out that the lands occupied by these English immigrants were acquired in fair, legal purchases, duly recorded in colonial archives. It is also true that white European immigrants—legal niceties aside—began to displace the original inhabitants of the land, who retreated ever further westward. This trend eventuated in King Philip’s War of 1675-76, the first real “Indian War” fought in the English colonies. More than 600 colonists were killed; thousands of Native Americans were killed or displaced. The ultimate effect was the continued advance of English civilization and progressive decimation of the American Indian population.

A present-day family poses with historical interpreters portraying its Pilgrim ancestors at Plimoth Plantation, Massachusetts.  “pallattos with ancestors” by drain is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0 

The Moral of the Story

Nobody can undo the past. The people of the past had their own motives, praiseworthy and otherwise, for everything they did. Wisdom for us in the present requires owning the full truth of the past in all its messy–sometimes inconvenient–complexity.

Blessings,

Larry F. Sommers, Your New Favorite Writer